The City and the Stream

Antwerp looks to revitalize its once bustling waterfront with a redevelopment plan that anticipates both growth and rising sea levels.

In the early seventeenth century, Flemish painter Sebastian Vrancx made a specialty of genre scenes depicting Antwerp’s bustling waterfront. These were dense compositions crammed with sailing ships and wharf tackle, merchants and vendors, grifters and ordinary citizens, all taking part in the dynamic daily economy of one of Europe’s great ports.

Antwerp’s golden age had actually come in the previous century. Vrancx took up his brush when the city’s glory was already fading, its role as de facto capital of international trade and finance lost to Amsterdam, its rival to the north. A resurgence would not come until the later half of the nineteenth century, fueled by the spoils of Belgium’s colonial empire. Large-scale industrialization, funded by the Marshall Plan, followed World War II.

Strategically positioned with Holland to the north, France to the south, Germany to the east, and England right across the channel, Antwerp makes for an attractive commercial hub. Roughly 160 million tons of cargo now pass through the city each year. By that measure, it is the fifth-busiest port in the world, surpassing even the combined facilities of New York and New Jersey.

Antwerp may have reclaimed something of its place on the world’s economic stage, but you’d never know it from a visit to the waterfront Vrancx brought so colorfully to life. That once vibrant space is now an uninhabited dead zone of empty cars and idling tour buses. The port facilities, though still within municipal limits, have been moved a healthy distance down the Scheldt River (the city’s connection to the North Sea)—out of sight, out of mind. In their place, stretching the entire six-kilometer length of Antwerp’s historic center, is a parking lot as wide as a soccer field.

The reestablishment of Antwerp’s connection to its waterfront has been a goal for the city’s planners for more than a decade, but only recently have forces aligned to make that dream not just a practical reality but also a necessity. The 130-year-old bluestone quay wall running along the Scheldt (pronounced “Skel-duh” by locals) has deteriorated to the point where reconstruction is no longer a luxury. At the same time, the entire harbor must be brought into compliance with the state’s Sigma Plan, a regional flood-prevention initiative first implemented in 1977 as a response to massive flooding and then recommissioned in 2004, which requires that the city be fortified to withstand a 4,000-year storm.

That’s no small challenge. Belgium and the Netherlands are known as the Low Countries for good reason; much of their land sits below sea level, and now thanks to global warming, the level of the sea is rising. As Dutch author and urbanist Geert Mak recently noted, the Low Countries are “like Bangladesh with money.” Urban sprawl along the Scheldt delta and the dredging of the harbor to improve port access have combined to make the area ever more vulnerable to flooding.

At present Antwerp is protected by a concrete flood barrier that rises 1.35 meters (about four and a half feet) above its crumbling quay wall, block-ing access to the river. This, however, is 90 centimeters (nearly three feet) short of the height required by the Sigma Plan. The prospect of stacking barrier on top of barrier is untenable—the result would be a wall roughly seven and a half feet tall, high enough to make the Scheldt all but invisible from the city.

“What is happening now is typical for a European harbor city,” says Kristiaan Borret, Antwerp’s energetic chief architect and planner. “Vast areas are becoming available for reintegration into the urban fabric.” Antwerp’s situation may be typical—Barcelona and Hanover, to name just two, have reclaimed industrial waterfront spaces in recent years—but its response has been innovative, the product of an international competition won last December by a joint submission from the Portugese firm PROAP (the atelier of landscape architect João Nunes) and the Belgian architectural planners WIT.

Their proposal is distinguished by a conscious decision to eschew a fully formed image-driven design. “One of the things we rejected was the kind of approach where people arrive at a place that has been studied for years and years, and then propose—with incredible arrogance—to promote a very different image of that place,” Nunes says. “That’s what we see when a big architectural star is invited to a place.” Indeed, most proposals to the competition featured illustrations of happy strollers walking through landscaped parkland safely elevated above the floodplain of the Scheldt.

The PROAP/WIT scheme was more diagrammatic, in both its form of presentation and its design strategy. “Landscape is created by successive processes and not by one action,” Nunes says. “We put together a master plan instead of a project. We decided to present a table of scenarios with approaches and consequences, trying to reduce things to a blank slate where some basic rules—a process—could be developed.”

That process will be governed by a series of ten topographical sections that read from above like the keys of a piano. Each key will address the river in a distinct fashion: one section, resting on pontoons, will rise and fall with the tides; another will slope down gradually from a protective berm; a third will cantilever out over the water. All suitably answer the demands of the Sigma Plan while retaining access—visual and physical—to the river. “Think of it as a toolbox for how the city reclaims contact with the water,” WIT’s Jan De Rop says. The spaces themselves will be left relatively open and unprogrammed, with minimal landscaping and few permanent structures—ideally suited to the temporary events (fairs, concerts, festivals) that typically make use of the vacant lots now. When flooding inevitably comes, there won’t be much to destroy, but the city beyond will be protected.

“Above all, this is a very metaphorical kind of statement,” Nunes says. “In the end you will not read the keyboard at all. The keyboard is the way it can be implemented. I imagine something much more fluid with the waterline.”

It is a compelling sentiment, but there is some question as to what will actually happen when Nunes’s metaphorical vision meets Antwerp’s physical reality. Of particular concern is the feasibility of the pontoon system. How, for instance, will a section that slopes down toward the river relate to a neighbor that rises and sinks with the tides? Nunes has proposed “articulations”—barriers, plinths, buildings—for the interstitial spaces, but just how they will be implemented has not been resolved. “I don’t know whether it’s possible; it sounds good, but it’s still too early,” says Eric Rinckhout, an arts journalist who writes frequently on urban affairs for De Morgen, Belgium’s leading independent daily.

A lack of resolution has, if anything, only endeared the project to those who will be building it. Indeed, its lack of any formal program is considered its greatest strength. “We want it to be rough,” Borret says of the plan. “We don’t want it to be too polished, too clean, too Disney, too theme park. One of the waterfront’s special features is that it is a vrijhaven—a free haven. The kind of atmosphere we are creating is a nonspace, but not in a negative way.” Walk through central Antwerp and you’ll understand the desire for a less programmed atmosphere.

With the emergence of fashion’s “Antwerp Six”—most famously Dries Van Noten and Ann Demeulemeester—in the mid-1990s, the city emerged as a Northern European center of couture. Its picturesque streets, once a breeding ground for dishabille students and artists, are now lined with high-end boutiques and the chain retail establishments that follow in their wake. In the face of gentrification, Antwerp’s planners hope to recapture a bit of the city’s authentic rough-and-tumble character. “The quays are a decompression zone, a terrain vague,” says Philippe Teughels, a young architect who is coordinating the project for the city. “The openness is a quality you need to have.”

Antwerp will pay a considerable price to retain the vagueness of its waterfront terrain. Preliminary estimates for the PROAP/WIT plan run as high as $320 million. The city will also lose 3,500 precious downtown parking spaces to the project. Another challenge: What to do with the city’s expanding population, now approaching half a million, given the impossibility of any serious building in the historically preserved core?

The solutions to these problems are to be found directly north of the city center in another forsaken harbor zone: Het Eilandje. The name means “Little Island” in Dutch, though it is not, strictly speaking, an island—and at more than 425 acres it isn’t little either. The area was first developed back in the middle of the sixteenth century as an extension of the overburdened central port. Periodically expanded over the centuries, it is now a patchwork of locks, docks, wharves, and warehouses bereft of the industry for which they were created. A walk around Eilandje today reveals vast empty lots covered by wild grasses scattered with container cranes, sitting like mechanical dinosaurs, rusting and unused.

That character will change in the coming years. Some of those prime empty spaces will be sold off to finance the PROAP/WIT waterfront project. Massive garages will compensate for the parking lost in the center. Hundreds of housing units will be constructed, including a series of privately developed 16-story towers overlooking the river. A tram line will be added to ferry all these commuters downtown.

The linchpin of the new Eilandje will be a signature museum building (de rigueur for any industrial revitalization since Frank Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim). Now under construction, the Museum aan de Stroom (“Museum on the Stream,” or MAS for short), designed by Dutch firm Neutelings-Riedijk, will be a six-story tower of curving glass panels and red Indian limestone punctuated by a grid of cast-aluminum hands. These are the work of sculptor Jan Fabre and reference the legend of the city’s naming: it is said that a mythical giant cut off the hands of those who refused to pay his toll and then tossed them into the river (hand werpen = “hand tossing”) until a local hero came along and exacted the same punishment in return. Etymologists don’t put much stock in the story, and in fact the entire museum, like Eilandje, is a bit of a misnomer: it is only metaphorically on the Scheldt. In reality it sits on a square spit of land that juts out over a Napoleonic-era dock, on a convenient axis with several downtown cultural institutions. Nomenclature aside, when it opens in 2010 it will certainly be eye-catching—and with its 360,000-piece collection documenting the city’s history, rooftop restaurant, and viewing platforms open 24 hours a day, it is likely to be a significant draw.

Flying high—perhaps too high—over all of this development will be a $3.2 billion bridge and highway connector planned for the northern quadrant of the district. The Lange Wapper is named, with unintended irony, for yet another mythical giant, one whose primary claim to fame is an ability to leap over bodies of water, but who also has a reputation for exasperating locals with inappropriate behavior. Designed by the engineering firms of René Greisch and Laurent Ney, the bridge will have a pair of needle-shaped towers, each 150 meters tall, that support a bowed 600-meter span carrying two floors of traffic. When completed in 2012, it will close the circuit of a ring road encircling Antwerp, thereby dramatically improving transportation times within Belgium and to France, Germany, and Holland.

Just about every aspect of the Lange Wapper—its location, aesthetics, environmental impact, cost, and contracting—has been subject to criticism, a flood of dissent that has risen straight up to the Flemish parliament. “Most people say it’s too close to the city and too close to the redevelopment in Eilandje,” Rinckhout says. “People want to be on the waterfront, and the bridge is going to be on top of that. It’s causing environmental problems, there are alternatives, there are procedural problems, and, of course, some people think it’s a very ugly bridge. Is it really necessary?”

For Borret the answer is most assuredly “yes.” And with funds already allocated, the giant is likely to become a reality that lives up to its name. “This will remove commercial traffic from the city center,” Borret says. Love it or hate it, there is no question it is a daring feat of master building. The result, it is hoped, will be not just a cleaner, unclogged downtown, but also the expansion of the city’s historic role as a trading hub.

One of the primary beneficiaries of these improvements would be Antwerp’s downtown waterfront, which would finally be completely liberated from the constraints of its industrial past. Some four centuries after Vrancx painted it, Antwerp harbor may again draw locals and visitors, but as a place of leisure rather than commerce.

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